Every now and again — when I’m speaking to some group — someone will ask, “how do you determine what news is?” They’re looking for a definition I can’t give them. It’s not an algorithm (sorry, Google); it’s a feeling from your heart to your head. You know it when you see it or when you feel it.
You have to be some sort of heart-dead or brain-dead person not to see the stories within the story of Pvt. Travis Hafterson, whom I’ve been writing about this week (here, here, here, and here). The 21-year-old Marine from Circle Pines left Camp LeJeune in North Carolina on leave last month only to find out his orders had been rescinded. He was looking for help for post traumatic stress disorder and his mother suggested he come home to get it.
We can argue — and we have, respectfully, in the posts I’ve made on News Cut this week — about whether he should have done that, but one thing cannot be denied: Travis Hafterson is a broken human in need of help and we did this to him.
We sent a kid off to war — twice — with all the bravado we could muster on lawn signs, bumper stickers and radio talk shows, and while we lived a comfortable life supporting our troops here with our yellow-ribbon magnets, Hafterson and thousands of other combat soldiers were accumulating memories that turn into nightmares.
Here’s just one of several I lifted from a psychological report he underwent last Saturday:
“He watched as an Iraqi police member opened the door of the house, only to have the back of his head explode from enemy fire. He tossed a grenade into the home. … Though (the enemy) had lost limbs, he was still alive. So Hafterson had no choice but to kill him with a knife through the throat.”
Hafterson’s primary story isn’t the only one that went largely unreported this week. So was the amazing story of how Minnesota’s system worked. Psychologists and psychiatrists gave up their days off last weekend, social workers stepped in, attorneys donated their time, court-appointed experts reacted with diligence, a Ramsey County judge and the staff of the Civil Commitment Court acted swiftly, sensitively, and urgently, purely because they recognized the need to help a kid — “one of our own,” you might say — who came home for help.
On Thursday, the Marines swept in, grabbed Hafterson before he could get it, and sent him to a military prison. He’s disappeared into the closed society of the military again, and the public symptoms of a wider mental-health scandal disappeared with him.
The Marines couldn’t have done it without the indifference of the news media in the Twin Cities.
Almost a year ago to the day, another Minnesota soldier also had a problem. Gwen Beberg befriended a dog in Iraq but had to leave “Ratchet” behind when she returned to the states. The local media sprang into action. The local newspapers carried the story on page one. Local TV news personalities wouldn’t let the story die, and finally the military relented. When the dog came home for a happy reunion, the TV stations were there live.
No such luck for Pvt. Hafterson or, for that matter, the hundreds or maybe thousands of soldiers like him who may exist if only we in the news media were interested enough to find out. No TV station picked up the Hafterson story this week. The Pioneer Press was the only newspaper to do so. The Star Tribune, which announced a “military affairs” beat just a week ago, ignored Hafterson’s plight. The Associated Press took a pass. The Huffington Post rejected the story as did National Public Radio. The alternative online news sources around here who fancy themselves the future of journalism — MinnPost, The Uptake, and City Pages, for example — proved that they can shrug their shoulders as well as the big boys. Of all alternative online sources of news, only Rick Kupchella’s new Bring Me the News “covered” the story.
If the news media here had treated Pvt. Travis Hafterson like a dog, it would’ve been an improvement.
While the Hafterson story was playing out in the Twin Cities this week, a summit on the future of journalism was being held in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Chronicle noted the theme:
Key to survival in the digital media age is rapidly responding to the preferences that consumers reveal every time they click a link, view an ad, read a story or post a comment, said Michael Franklin, professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. He is also the founder of Truviso, a San Mateo company that creates tools for analyzing consumer data.
Each online action represents clues that media companies can use to customize content, products and ads to particular consumers. That, in turn, can increase customers’ engagement with the site and the likelihood of responding to marketing, he said.
Fancy talk, indeed, but it leaves out the two most important elements of journalism. It needs to employ people who give a damn and it needs to make you look, when your instinct is to turn away.
At some future point, the PTSD story will resurface in the form of some tragedy, and the media wags will ask “how could this happen?” When it comes time to ask the question, we should be looking in the mirror.